The celebrations amongst Alliance party supporters last Friday must have been legendary – to have won a Westminster seat at all was nigh-on unthinkable, but to take the seat of the King of Unionism himself, Peter Robinson, made the victory all the more dramatic.
Overall Alliance won 6.3% of the vote – respectable, but not earth-shattering. And most of their votes were won in only a few constituencies: East Belfast alone accounted for over 30% of its total. Seven seats of the greater Belfast area – East and South Belfast, East and South Antrim, North Down, Lagan Valley and Strangford – accounted for almost 77% of the party’s vote – and were the only seats in which Alliance actually retained its deposit. In the seats in the west and south of Northern Ireland – Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Foyle, Mid Ulster, Newry and Armagh, South Down and West Tyrone – Alliance won a total of 3,021 votes (7.1% of its total), and, of course, lost its deposit in each of these seats.
The election showed that Alliance is a sub-regional party. Where some parties limit themselves to the small pond of Northern Ireland (the DUP and the SDLP), and others are by historical fact wider in scope (Sinn Féin), or try to be (the UUP), all of these four are, at least, represented in all corners of Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party, though, is a party of only a part of Northern Ireland – a region within a region. Its existence outside Greater Belfast is paltry, and even its candidates in some ‘southern and western’ constituencies were blow-ins from Alliance’s East Ulster heartland.
Alliance is a party of a particular group – middle-class and suburban, both Protestant and Catholic, in the Greater Belfast area. Its failure to appeal either to working class people in Belfast or elsewhere, or to rural and small-town people, is an indication of its own limitations. As a party of the Belfast middle-class – probably primarily those employed in the public sector – it cannot truly understand the needs or wants of those who are not well-employed, pensionable, educated and urbane. In a large country such a self-limiting party may carve out a niche, but in a small region like Northern Ireland – and restricted to an even smaller part of that region by its own lack of appeal – the party will have to struggle to remain relevant.
Euphoria over Naomi Long’s historic victory in East Belfast should not blind the Alliance Party to its extremely marginal existence. It is a single-city party, and such narrow political vehicles do not often last long. It lost its deposit in 11 of the 18 seats! A failure to build upon Long’s success – by geographical and political broadening – may consign Alliance to history’s dustbin just when its members think that they’re finally arrived.